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How speculative design can help the public sector plan for tomorrow’s challenges

Speculative design is being used by organisations across the public sector to help imagine the future and better plan for transformative change. Our design consultant Karen Barrett outlines some of the opportunities that this design practice brings for engaging people in designing better futures.

We believe design has a critical role to play in shaping better futures for people, communities and society; but how can we design for better futures today if we can’t see what’s coming tomorrow?

Speculative design is a method that helps us to understand not only what is likely to come next, but also what might be possible given what we know today. By exploring some of the more radical possibilities of tomorrow, we open up the opportunities for more transformative ideas, models and strategies to emerge.


What is speculative design? 

Speculative design is “a tool to create not only things but ideas…[Speculative] design is a means of speculating about how things could be—to imagine possible futures.” (Dunne and Raby, 2014)

The futures cone (below) is a useful tool to understand what speculative design is and does. The cone maps out probable, preferable and possible futures as well as more ‘wild card’ scenarios. Without critical reflection we hurl forwards towards probable futures. speculative design considers the other futures: plausible, possible or wild card scenarios, as a means of questioning where we are headed and why.

Speculative design achieves this by creating objects or scenarios from these futures which help us to imagine what a future world could be. By having a tangible experience of an imagined future we can begin to interact with it and debate its merits and flaws.


Joseph Voros, A generic foresight process framework (2003) adapted from ‘A Primer on Futures Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios’ by Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology.

Speculative design traditionally exists in the academic sphere where is used to provoke, inspire and provide a critical commentary. Increasingly however, the value of speculative design is being recognised in other fields including in the public sector.


How is it being used in the public sector? 

Last year, the Government Office for Science (Go Science) partnered with design and research company Strange Telemetry on their Future of Ageing project. Together they ran public engagement workshops to explore the challenges and opportunities of an ageing society.

Participants were presented with digital mock-ups of future cityscapes which included imagined future workplaces and urban transit systems. Workshop participants were asked to respond to the futuristic images looking past issues of plausibility, and instead focusing on the possible benefits, drawbacks, and wider implications of each projected scenario. Hence, opening up a wider conversation on what they want for their city in the coming years.

Strange Telemetry, Future of Ageing, 2015.


Why is speculative design valuable?

1. Engagement – It is important to include communities in future shaping activities but it can be very difficult to engage people in a future which, as yet, is undefined. speculative design makes imagined futures tangible through the creation of artefacts. Through interacting with these artefacts the public can engage and react to what this future represents.

2. Inspiration – speculative design lets us burst out of the known and into the unknown, allowing us to think beyond current reality. By nature of being speculative, artefacts have permission to be odd, humorous or striking which makes particularly stimulating for idea generation.

3. Open up new spaces – Speculative design creates safe space to be critical of what is currently happening and to reflect on the direction in which we are headed. It creates the opportunity to explore both what we want and do not want in our future. By having such conversations, we can push at the edge of reality and re-direct it towards a preferable over probable outcome.


How can you start using it? 


What are some of the challenges?

The purpose of speculative design is to push boundaries and provoke, therefore it is inherently controversial in nature. Within the public sector, this creates potential risk for causing offense, reputational damage or for speculations to be confused with real world propositions. We work closely with organisations to remove these risks by socialising the concept of speculative design, and its role in prompting much needed debate surrounding how things could be.

We are currently exploring emerging foresight techniques including speculative design, as part of our ideas and innovation Lab, Hatch. If you would like to hear more about our work or how speculative design could benefit your organisation, get in touch at robbie@uscreates.com.